In '36, Owens' feats spoiled Hitler's party American threw wrench into propaganda machine

Olympiads in review

April 21, 1996|By Bob Herzog | Bob Herzog,NEWSDAY

As part of the countdown to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a chronological look at past Olympiads is appearing each Sunday. Jesse Owens. Adolf Hitler. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times in Berlin for the 1936 Summer Olympics.

The Games had been awarded to Germany in 1931, before Hitler and his Nazi party had come to power. By '36, the anti-Semitic and racist policies of the Third Reich had sparked numerous protests and calls for a boycott of the Games. But USOC president Avery Brundage urged participation and, in a close vote, the U.S. team decided to attend.

The Berlin Games were among the most dramatic and controversial in history. Hitler made sure his magnificent, 70,000-seat stadium, the Reich Sports Field, was ready for the Opening Ceremonies. And he made sure the stadium -- and the entire Olympics -- was a stage for his propaganda.

Black swastikas and iron crosses were everywhere. The propaganda machine produced bulletins in 14 languages sent to 3,000 newspapers and magazines around the world that espoused Hitler's philosophy of a pure Aryan race, the evils of Jews and the inferiority of blacks.

Hitler wrote in one bulletin: "The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them."

Not all of the German athletes followed Hitler's lead. Jesse Owens, America's greatest black athlete of that era, told Olympic historian and film maker Bud Greenspan this remarkable story for Greenspan's book, "100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History": "German champion Luz Long saved me in the long jump. In the qualifying round, we had three attempts to make it to the final, but I fouled twice. I was scared stiff I would blow it on my last attempt. . . . Long came over to me and, in broken English, said, 'Jesse, let me make a suggestion. I will place my towel a foot in front of the foul line and you can use this for your takeoff.' "

It worked. Owens qualified, then beat Long for the gold medal. "After my victory was secure," Owens told Greenspan, "Luz was the first one to greet me and we walked arm in arm right in front of Hitler's box. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is, I never saw Luz Long again. He was killed in World War II."

Owens maintained a relationship with Long's family, and once wrote this letter to Long's son about the 1936 incident: "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment."

Owens had other moments in Berlin, winning the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay. The four golds went unmatched in men's track and field until American Carl Lewis duplicated the feat in Los Angeles in 1984.

Owens' relay gold was tinged with controversy. He and his teammates wanted Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller to run on the team and gain a sure victory in front of Hitler. But U.S. officials removed the two and insisted that Owens and Ralph Metcalfe replace them.

U.S. coach Lawrence Robertson said at the time he feared the Dutch and German teams and wanted his best unit. That story never rang true, especially since the U.S. team won quite easily. Owens said he believed that Nazi officials had pressured Robertson into not using Glickman and Stoller because they didn't want to be embarrassed further by losing to Jewish runners as well as blacks.

The controversies of the '36 Games were a harbinger of things to come around the world. In 1938, Japan and China went to war, effectively canceling the 1940 Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo. In 1939, Hitler's armies invaded Poland and, two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II prevented the 1944 Games scheduled for London.

The worst of times, indeed.

1936 Games

Site: Berlin

Dates: Aug. 1-16

Men: 3,738

Women: 328

Nations: 49

Medals leaders .......... G ..... S ..... B ..... T

Germany ................. 33 .... 26 .... 30 .... 89

United States ........... 24 .... 20 .... 12 .... 56

Hungary ................. 10 .... 1 ..... 5 ..... 16

Italy ................... 8 ..... 9 ..... 5 ..... 22

Finland ................. 7 ..... 6 ..... 6 ..... 19

France .................. 7 ..... 6 ..... 6 ..... 19

Sweden .................. 6 ..... 5 ..... 9 ..... 20

Holland ................. 6 ..... 4 ..... 7 ..... 17

Japan ................... 5 ..... 4 ..... 7 ..... 16

England ................. 4 ..... 7 ..... 3 ..... 14

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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